NAIS Blog Post

I had the good fortune to publish a piece on faculty professional development with NAIS’s blog, Independent Ideas called, “School Change: One Faculty Member at a Time.” I hope you’ll check it out!

Posted in Education | 1 Comment

A Psychologist Talks Curiosity

A colleague of mine sent me the following article by Susan Engel, professor of psychology at Williams College, “Joy: A Subject Schools Lack.” This is a particularly fitting article for those of us at McDonogh since “joy” is the central word in our school’s mission statement. As I started reading, I found myself nodding more and more vigorously. I think that, sometimes, when we talk of curiosity, joy, student-centered learning, and so on, we risk having these ideas questioned (this is not a new theme for me). But as I burrow ever further into research on the brain and education, I am convinced that we must make curiosity and joy real priorities in our work — these qualities pave the way to student motivation, thinking, and deep learning. I am convinced of this. I’m sure I’ll be writing more about this in the coming weeks and months, but I really just wanted to spread the name, Susan Engel. And now I leave you with a talk Engel gave a few years ago at Williams, The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity.

Posted in Education | 1 Comment

Find Your Meaning, Part 2

No profit grows where is no pleasure ta’en.

In brief, sir, study what you most affect.

Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare


My parents, who were both first-generation Portuguese-Americans (Azorean-Americans, to be precise), didn’t graduate from high school. It just wasn’t in the cards for them. But, when they raised me, they always had their hearts set on my attending college. And college, like all education for them, meant opportunity and a better life. The American Dream. Possibility.

Indeed, education has meant all of this for me. No, I’m not rich, and, no, I didn’t attend a well-known college. All of my education was public, and I held part-time jobs the whole way. And this, though I didn’t know it at the time, freed me. With no expectation beyond my schooling other than learning, I was able to do anything, take any class, cook up big dreams. It was only in retrospect, when I encountered students in my high school teaching for whom this kind of latitude wasn’t always possible, that I realized how lucky I’d been.

I’m still lucky. For nearly twenty-five years, I’ve had the privilege of teaching, and whether this took place in college seminars, high school classrooms, or on the stage, I have always kept sight of what education has given to me: a sense of purpose and endless possibility.

At the moment, the education world is ablaze with titles about where education is failing, where it is working, and where it is going. While some authors call for sweeping reforms at the legislative level, others are content to share what they believe is the path to better teaching at the classroom level. I love settling into my chair at night with the most recent research on educational neuroscience or with the latest from Project Zero. But, for all the stimulation (and, often, genuinely good, useful ideas), education, for me, is about helping a student find his or her meaning, and many methods can lead to successful teaching. What passion gets a person up in the morning? What passion keeps a person up at night? This passion is the object, I believe, of learning, and it’s the noblest objective to which teachers can aspire in their practice with children. And when a child finds his or her meaning — or what could, one day, become that meaning — then anything is possible. Purpose and possibility.

I see the next phase of my career as an administrator-teacher helping to get everyone involved with schools — students, parents, teachers, administrators — to continually ask: What is education? Why do we teach? What is the purpose of school? These are the questions that, at first glance, seem easy to answer. I know they were for me.

These questions have gotten much more complicated for me over the years, however. Much more. And for that, I’m grateful.

Posted in Education | 1 Comment

Find Your Meaning

I got invited to the White House yesterday. No kidding. I was sitting at dinner with some colleagues and students at McDonogh, and I got a message on my phone from President Obama’s Director of Presidential Correspondence asking if I’d be interested in attending the Criminal Justice Reform panel he and The Marshall Project were holding.

I said no.

That’s a lie, of course. I was ready to head down to DC last night, for crying out loud!

But why would a high school teacher get this phone call? Well, this past summer, I learned about the President’s wish to examine and reform the criminal justice system in the United States. He gave a speech at the NAACP, and I admired his wish to understand why, since 1980, the prison population in the U.S. has increased from under 500,000 inmates to roughly 2.2 million people in our day. And those who are incarcerated are disproportionately represented by black and Latino men. Add to this the fact that our current prison profile costs taxpayers around $80 billion, and you can see why this is a priority. For more on the history of corrections in the U.S. during this period, see Ta Nehisi Coates’s, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” The Atlantic‘s featured article in its October issue.


President Obama on the right and me on the left.

President Obama’s call for reform also comes hard on the heels of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray. And, as he said today, while most law enforcement have the best of intentions in the midst of often very dangerous work, we cannot ignore that black men and boys seem singled out in exceptional ways, historically.

But why me? Well, in the past year, I have grown increasingly dissatisfied with my own ignorance about the problems with racism in this country and with the ways I benefit from structural bias day-to-day. If I’m a teacher with intentions of helping students prepare for life, I have a deep obligation to own my ignorance and to do something about it. Without question, the events in Ferguson, Staten Island, and Baltimore opened my eyes. I didn’t only want to learn; I wanted to do something, too. Freddie Gray, I thought, could easily have been any number of young men in my classroom.

And so I started to read, watch, and discuss. I filled in gaps in my understanding of Civil Rights. I read Coates’s, Between the World and Me. Our school read Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” I learned about Freedom Summer. I devoured Ralph Ellison’s, Invisible Man. You get the picture.

I was also working with McDonogh’s Director of Diversity to help pen the School’s Diversity Strategic Plan. I was immersed in the conversation about diversity and, in particular, about race and racism in the United States. I’m not too proud of the fact that, as a 46-year-old, I had so many gaps (and continue to have them), but I own that truth, and I want to do something about it.

And, so, when I heard the President’s platform, I did something I never thought I’d do: I wrote him a letter. To cut to the chase, I thanked him for his work on this issue and I offered to serve on an advisory board if education was to be part of this reform (which it is).

Time passed. School started. The leaves turned yellow and red.

And then the phone call came: “The President read your letter, marked it up, and passed it around to some of his team. He thought you might like to attend this panel.”

But why did I think I had (have) anything to offer? First, I have had the privilege to know people in the Shakespeare theatre world who have done remarkable work with prison populations. Curt Tofteland, whom I cited in my letter to Mr. Obama, founded the rightly famous, Shakespeare Behind Bars program. Now in its 21st year, SBB has had a significant impact on parts of the population that the rest of us would soon like to forget. And I get that. Many of the people who are in prison are, to be sure, guilty of their crimes — some actions that are too awful to name. But with the major majority of inmates scheduled for release, how prepared are they for re-entry? Will they be released ready for the challenges of life (especially when carrying the stigma of a felony), or will they be stripped of these life skills and, sooner than later, add to the recidivism numbers? SBB has proven that arts programs — indeed, all education — help to create a population of people more ready to be contributing citizens.  The work of Curt Tofteland and many others who have followed in his steps inspired me, and I knew that I could count on that Shakespeare community to contribute to any expansion of such programming.


President Barack Obama and LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck

I also wrote because I have been a classroom teacher for nearly 25 years, and, in that time, I think I have come to know what is at the very core of every teacher’s job: to help students find their meaning. Yes, we prepare them for college and jobs, but, in the end, they’d get into college and find jobs without much help from us. The greatest joy and the greatest calling of being a teacher is to clear a path so that a student turns down that path toward the thing that becomes the first thing they think of in the morning and the last thing they see in their mind’s eye at night.

I’ve had the privilege to see students who thought little of the stage in the 9th grade enroll as conservatory students in acting after high school. And I know this happens in math, English, music, visual art, science, world language, and history all the time.

Sometimes, when I hear about gang members in Baltimore or about people leaving their countries to join ISIS, I think, “they’re looking for their meaning.” And, as tragic as it might be, they probably find it there on some level. And then I think, “If they only had a drama program or a lacrosse team or violin, what might be different?”

I’m not naive. I know having a role in Hamlet won’t transform everyone. No, not everyone. But some? Yes. Many? Yes. I say yes. And I believe that the many people in prisons and those most at risk for being sent to one are there — or will be — because, at some point, they were denied more positive ways to find their meaning.

And that’s why I wrote President Obama. And that’s why I teach and will continue to teach. And that’s why I think it’s important that I tell you about it.

Posted in Education | 9 Comments

Make a Good Argument. Really.

In the last few days, several people have emailed me Molly Worthen’s op-ed piece in the New York Times, “Lecture Me. Really.” I read the article, and I have some thoughts. But let me say, before I go any further: lecture, when well-done, can be a truly amazing teaching tool. I wouldn’t lecture all the time, however, but I wouldn’t do any one thing all the time. People love and respond to variety, and my students are people, so . . . well, you get the syllogism.

I also believe that, in our time, when we are asking thoughtful questions about pedagogy, that it is a fool’s errand to get caught up in the false choice of “either lecture or active learning.”

Good. I needed to get that out of my system. Now onto Worthen’s article.

Here’s what I like. It is indeed a wonder to be in the presence of a great lecturer in the same way that we love to be in the presence of any great performing artist — and I’m not being ironic about this. This past summer, a colleague of mine from another independent school and I were talking about lecture, and we both agreed that when lecture secures the power of great storytelling (my bias) or of polemic (his), then it can indeed awaken students’ ability to engage in meaningful ways. I do also think that the practice of note-taking is critical, and this is a skill that students can and should practice.

But let’s look at Worthen’s language and assumptions, for this is what strikes me as most problematic. She writes,

In many quarters, the active learning craze is only the latest development in a long tradition of complaining about boring professors, flavored with a dash of that other great American pastime, populist resentment of experts.

Active learning, celebrated by the likes of John Dewey over a century ago (to name only one person), hardly makes what we’re doing these days a “craze,” if I understand “craze” as being on the same level as, say, “The Frug,” which, if memory serves, baffled Alan Sherman and drove him nuts. But I digress. But is this “craze,” as she calls it, necessarily a function of the alleged “boring professors” and “resentment of experts”? She suggests this. And yet, if one takes the time to read the research and thought on active pedagogies, active learning is about what’s best for students and not some implicit indictment of “boring teachers.” In other words, students, the literature suggests, still learn more when they are are constructing their learning even if they have a top-flight lecturer. We follow the research that says what’s best for student learning — not because we’re out to get anyone. What’s really going on here? Hmmmm

She continues:

Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.

Comprehension and reasoning are indeed essential demands, I agree. But, while I concur that lecture can succeed at imparting the importance of these abilities — and maybe even imparting these skills — is lecture, as Worthen seems to suggest, the only or the best way? I’ve never seen a student learn the skill of playing a trumpet by hearing a lecture on how to do it or by even hearing the horn played. True, some instruction helps to set a student up for success, but he or she must ultimately make the sound.

She adds:

In the humanities, a good lecture class does just what Newman said: It keeps students’ minds in energetic and simultaneous action. And it teaches a rare skill in our smartphone-app-addled culture: the art of attention, the crucial first step in the “critical thinking” that educational theorists prize.

A terrific lecture most assuredly can energize a mind (and, in my responses here, I’m assuming the lecture is indeed terrific and not just the recitation of Google-able information). But that’s not what bothers me here. It’s the grumpy-toned accusation that follows — that somehow all students are being damaged by a “smartphone-app-addled culture.” First of all, she does not know if any social media actually “addles” anyone. It might. But it might not. But this sentence assumes that all of her students are somehow doomed by their choices — unless, of course, she can save them from themselves and from this monster called culture. Somewhere, Allan Bloom is nodding in agreement with Worthen. But I digress.

In what follows, I, believe it or not, find myself in agreement with Worthen (until she goes and assumes the worst of her students, which, as a teacher, I abhor in her article):

In the humanities, a lecture “places a premium on the connections between individual facts,” Monessa Cummins, the chairwoman of the classics department and a popular lecturer at Grinnell College, told me. “It is not a recitation of facts, but the building of an argument.”

Yes. A polemic. The telling of a story. Yes. But wait — she’s going to sell her students short again (geez, just when I was starting to feel fuzzy):

In our time, when any reading assignment longer than a Facebook post seems ponderous, students have little experience doing this [i.e., absorbing a long, complex argument].

So, are we to assume that before social media and the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, every student found lectures on Hegel scintillatingly clear? She should maybe go to a lecture on pre-social media lectures to check her reasoning. But I digress.

Here’s another baffling section:

Holding their attention is not easy. I lecture from detailed notes, which I rehearse before each class until I know the script well enough to riff when inspiration strikes. I pace around, wave my arms, and call out questions to which I expect an answer. When the hour is done, I’m hot and sweaty.

Again, I don’t deny the effect of a well-delivered, well-planned lecture. But can Worthen see that the workout she enjoys — and that allows her to be inspired and to riff — might, in the hands of her students if she gave them a similar opportunity, give them a first-person experience that would make them so much more than spectators? I’ve seen hot and sweaty people at the gym, but if I’m not on the treadmill myself getting hot and sweaty, I’m not losing an ounce (and I would know!).

The last thing I’ll look at here is this:

“Note-taking should be just as eloquent as speaking,” said Medora Ahern, a recent graduate of New Saint Andrews College in Idaho. I tracked her down after a visit there persuaded me that this tiny Christian college has preserved some of the best features of a traditional liberal arts education. She told me how learning to take attentive, analytical notes helped her succeed in debates with her classmates. “Debate is really all about note-taking, dissecting your opponent’s idea, reducing it into a single sentence. There’s something about the brevity of notes, putting an idea into a smaller space, that allows you psychologically to overcome that idea.”

First of all, note-taking isn’t specific to the lecture hall; anyone can take notes at any time — say, when students are working in a group. Doing research. For, say, oh, I don’t know . . . a debate. And wait! Does the professor perform the debate from the lectern? No? You mean the students actually have to do this work themselves?

What is this social-media-addled culture coming to?

Posted in Education | Leave a comment

The “How” And The “What”

Over the summer, when I read Fareed Zakaria’s book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, I learned about the recent founding of the Yale-NUS College in Singapore. I was smitten (and was even looking for the best flight deals so that I could visit — couldn’t quite find that!). I love what they’re about, and I’m excited to keep up with their program.

Just this morning, I read Michael Roth’s short article in The Atlantic, “American Liberal Education is Happening in Singapore.” This is a very good piece, for it continues to clarify the debate in this country between liberal arts learning and vocational training. Here is Roth talking about this issue in the context of visiting Yale-NUS College’s grand opening:

Here we were, in Singapore, to launch a new American-style college, while back in the United States the principles of that model—broad, contextual, and conceptual study—were under enormous pressure. The irony wasn’t lost on any of us. Education leaders across Asia have become interested in moving away from exam-dominated curricula and their requisite memorization and toward experiential, interdisciplinary learning aimed at exploring connections between research and action. Having traditionally insisted on early vocational specialization, universities in India, Korea, and China are now considering how best to encourage the inquiry, collaboration, and experimentation that are key to the American traditions of liberal education. These are traditions that I, as the president of Wesleyan University and author of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, champion.

In an earlier blog post, I referenced the attempt by Governor Walker’s administration in Wisconsin to re-write the University’s mission, a rhetorical move that would have upended The Wisconsin Idea and the sensibility behind liberal arts ideals. Walker’s sentiment isn’t a one-party position, however; the tension between liberal arts and vocational learning is a national conversation about the purpose of an education.

This conversation, however, is built on a false dichotomy. And false dichotomies can cordon people into camps that they themselves would abhor being part of. “For many Americans who labor in the fields of liberal education,” Roth continues in his article in The Atlantic,

it has recently felt like a drought as financial support and public understanding dries up. During this time of arid anxiety—in which so many pundits and policymakers are calling for quick utilitarian nanodegrees or certificates—even defenders of broad inquiry often find themselves promising to quench the public’s thirst for a return-on-investment with a vocational justification of liberal-arts education.

So, it seems that education leaders and teachers have to make a choice: either join “Camp Vocation” or “Camp Liberal Arts.”

This must be resisted.

First of all, it can cause otherwise well-intentioned teachers to take up, on the one hand, a purely utilitarian stance on education — i.e., learning as simply a means to an end, that end being, for many in this country, a well-paying job. Or, it can cause one to adopt an atavistic position on a liberal arts education resulting in teachers and education leaders dismissing anything innovative in teaching and learning and hunkering down with “the way things used to be.”

Why on Earth would we settle for this either/or thinking?

This is why I love LifeReady. McDonogh’s Plan finds a third position and answers the shared call to, on the one hand, honor the deep value that a broad liberal arts education affords students while, on the other, simultaneously preparing young people with the skills to be strong, contributing citizens for a global-minded, pluralistic, and unknown world. It does so — and this is where I think Roth’s article could use a little development — because LifeReady sees pedagogy as the way forward when talking about how to develop in students the capacity to problem-solve, to collaborate, to innovate. Roth continues,

Like many others, I have defended liberal education by demonstrating why vocational training alone is inadequate—but often pointing to the long-term career benefits of broad learning. In an effort to appeal to students and their parents, I’ve learned how to make arguments for the utility of contextual and conceptual learning; I can cite the evidence for the lifelong economic advantages of a broad course of study; I’m able to point to illustrious examples of “innovators” who draw on their humanistic study to productively “disrupt” an economic sector.

I like all of what Roth says, and I agree. But what he doesn’t address is the pedagogy itself; he stays at the level of the “what” in coursework, but he doesn’t get to the idea of the “how.” Both are critical, for they nourish each other as they combine to clear a path past the unfortunate dichotomy I mention above.

When done well, pedagogical frameworks, like Project-Based Learning, deliver core liberal arts content — what we’ve always taught (and for good reason!) — via an approach that awakens the faculties in students that will serve more practical ends. To be fair, Roth does mention Dewey and the value of different “perspectives and methodologies.” It’s that final word, “methodologies,” that gestures towards the “how.”

Perhaps either/or vocational training/liberal arts makes for good news. It doesn’t make for good thinking, though. I prefer to live in the world of both/and.

What do you think?

Posted in Education | 3 Comments

In Love

I am so enamored of Carnegie-Mellon University’s Eberly Center (Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation) Web site, which I just recently discovered. I’m working with colleagues at McDonogh on assessment in all its manifold glory, and as we dig deeper into what LifeReady can mean for McDonogh, we must necessarily consider how we’ll measure student learning and also what John Hattie would call “teacher impact” (thanks, Rose, for sending his work my way!). Assessment, of course, immediately begs questions about 1) what is being taught and 2) how that content is being taught. That leads, of course, to talking about curriculum. Suffice it to say that it doesn’t take long at all before one is awash in ideas that seem to lead everywhere at once. That’s sort of where I am. But, truth be told, I love this feeling.

I’m not an expert in assessment. I, like so many other independent school teachers, entered the classroom as a novice armed only with what I learned in English literature seminars. I had no formal training as a teacher at all. And for a long time, I really didn’t think too much about pedagogy, assessment, etc. I taught the way I was taught.

This worked well enough for a time, but I started to encounter classes that were, for all my charisma and passion, a bit bored with me droning on about “what Hamlet means.” It’s commonplace these days to disparage this kind of teaching (though an occasional well-placed lecture is still a thing of beauty) and to laud student-centered pedagogy. I am, of course, for this shift, but such a transformation raises other questions about what education is about that we still must honor in the face welcomed and necessary change.

My research landed me on the Eberly Center’s Web site, and I am particularly interested in their page called Teaching & Learning Principles. What I love is this: this Center talks about teaching and learning in ways that are completely current — i.e., ways that look past Prussian models into world where students are engaged in and are constructing their own learning. Skeptics who think that the evolution in teaching and learning is just a fad often cite lack of content coverage and threats to rigor as reasons to stay the course. But Eberly points this thinking up as a false dichotomy; a turn to student-centered learning — the kind of thing one might find in, say, project-based learning where content mastery and skills performance are both important and are accomplished by students themselves — doesn’t preclude the high expectations that have always been prized by teachers who want the best for their students’ learning.

The key for me is how we serve the kinds of teaching and learning principles of the sort the Eberly Center outlines at the same time that we look forward into the kind of teaching that truly electrifies students and prepares them for the future. I think we’re on our way, but I stopped to write a few statements, which I labeled “Guiding Principles of Teaching, Learning, & Assessment.” This is not school policy, but rather my way of writing to think, to know, to question. Here’s what I have so far:

We are shifting the emphasis in our teaching away from a practice where we merely deliver content and then test whether that content has been memorized/mastered.

Teaching and learning at McDonogh, as guided by LifeReady, will emphasize the teaching of content and skills.

Teaching and learning will still honor core liberal arts areas, and McDonogh will create a program that is appropriately rigorous so that students are challenged and prepared for life after graduation.

Curricula will be shaped by deliberate, purposeful work by PK-12 teams to determine

  • what the essential questions and big ideas of a discipline are;
  • how content and skills learning are chosen to deliver these big ideas.

Even though we may hold true to the principles of teaching and learning as, say, outlined by the Eberly Institute of CMU, we must realize these goals by the creation and curation of 1) thoughtful pedagogical approaches that deliver high-quality content learning in ways that build life ready skills (this will prepare students as outlined by LifeReady and will simultaneously engage students in work that is meaningful to them); 2) assessment practices that both instruct and measure learning in a variety of ways.

These are most assuredly “notes to myself,” but why keep a thing like this private, right? I’m in process as I believe most teachers are these days. So why not chime in and share your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you!

Posted in Education | 4 Comments